With the spread of coronavirus, many of us who are used to going into the office or out to sites are now homebound and trying to figure out what it looks like to work effectively from home. Introvert or extrovert, excited about the shift to work at home or not, it takes a bit of time, experimentation and self knowledge to figure out how to make working from home work for you.
Yet the reality of this moment in time is that those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to work right now (so many in our society don’t have this privilege) don’t have the time to experiment & iterate our way into working from home effectively. We need to start doing it now…and often while managing other concerns – like homeschooling children or working in cramped spaces with a partner or roommate. I coach people across a wide range of sectors, and while many of them are asking questions about how to manage the emotional experience of now – the uncertainty and ambiguity – an equal number are trying to understand tactically what it means and looks like to do work from home.
As a coach and consultant, I’ve run my own business out of my home for the last three and a half years. My fiancee has a job that often has him working at home as well in our shared space. As such, I’ve experimented with all sorts of tricks and tools to help me (and us) enjoy the freedom and flexibility of the work from home experience while remaining productive and on good terms with each other. I’ve also coached hundreds of people to design systems and structures that support them in working productively and sustainably. Here are six tips & tools that have helped me and my clients over the years to navigate transition and to work effectively from home.
Since we live in a world of diverse experiences, not all of these tips will be relevant & applicable to everyone, so take what’s useful as is, adjust what could be useful to fit your context, and leave the rest behind. 🙂 This is a crazy time. I’m sending a lot of love and prayers for peace and practicality during this moment.
TIP #1: Get dressed. Yes, it’s tempting to hang out in your pajamas all day. AND, I find that when I lounge around in pajamas all day, I get into the “pajama mindset” and am often less motivated, accountable, & productive and more likely to be overtaken by the whims of the world. When I get up, shower, put on professional (or semi professional) clothes, do my hair and makeup – i.e. all the things that I’d do when I’m going out to a client site or meeting face to face with people – I find I’m more focused, engaged & effective, whether I’m on a Zoom call or working solo at my computer on a project. In a world where so many things are out of my control, getting dressed in the morning sometimes feels like the thing I know I can really win at. And that is no small thing in terms of setting a tone for the day 😉
TIP #2: Transport & continue your daily routine as much as possible. Many of my clients who have been thrust into working from home report feeling like they “have no routine.” Yet when I ask them, “What does your daily routine look like when you’re not working from home?” they share all sorts of small actions they take before or after work or while they are at the office that they can easily keep doing or simply transport to their home environment – things like waking up a certain time, working out, going through a morning prep routine, running through their to do list, taking lunch, going for a mid day walk, etc. I’m a big fan of not reinventing the wheel when you don’t have to – it places additional cognitive stress on your brain, and in this climate of so much uncertainty, we want to minimize that. So, if you have a routine that you go through on a normal work day and it works for you, then keep doing it and make only minor tweeks where it makes sense. For example, when I worked in an office, my daily routine looked like this: Get up at 7am, dress, turn the coffee pot on, walk & feed the dog, brew my coffee (I’m a French press girl), check my schedule & write my to do list for the day, put my coffee in a travel mug and head out the door. Do a first round of email checking while on public trans, then tee up a podcast for the walk to the office. Schedule lunch (because if I didn’t I wouldn’t take it), get up for a few socialization, bathroom, mindfulness breaks during the day. Schedule some closeout time right before I headed home to plan for tomorrow, read on the train home, work out, have dinner, do something fun, shower, go to sleep. I pretty much do all the same things in the same order now that I work from home, with a few modifications. I don’t have a commute, so I wake up an hour later. I listen to podcasts as I walk the dog – who gets a longer walk, by the way. I pour my coffee into a regular mug. My socialization breaks include calling my mother for 15 minutes in between things. But otherwise, I’ve transported a good amount of my so called “office routine” to my work at home one. Remember, routines give us a sense of anchoring & stability, which is so important at this moment in time – so I invite you, as much as you can, to let go of the binary that your “whole routine is lost to you” or that you have to come up with a “completely new routine” in order to work effectively from home. Instead, have a look at what you normally do each day, and ask yourself: What can I keep doing exactly as is or tweak just slightly now that I’m working from home?
TIP #3: Schedule explicit time for personal tasks. One of the beautiful things about working from home is that you can often do personal tasks like laundry, cooking, calling friends & family, etc. throughout the day…as opposed to doing them all on weekends or in the evenings. But here’s the thing – tasks tend to expand to fill the time we allot them. When we leave personal tasks unscheduled, we essentially give ourselves an unknown (read, an unlimited) amount of time to do them in. AND this spaciousness tends to result in tasks taking much longer to complete than is really necessary. Entire work days can get eaten up by 1-2 “personal tasks.” Case in point, when I give myself permission to do laundry or go to the grocery store whenever and for however long I want, that can take a whole afternoon. When I schedule 30 minutes in between calls to fold stuff or an hour to go to the store, it’s amazing how much more quickly that laundry gets folded. By scheduling my personal tasks, even the small ones, I know when to start them, when to end them and when to get on to the next thing on the calendar. Personal tasks become useful breaks from work, not impediments to it.
TIP #4: Honor your natural rhythms, but don’t extend the day just because you don’t have a commute. The average American spends 51 minutes commuting to and from work in a day (that’s about 204 hours a year), and many of us spend MUCH longer than that. Working from home means no commute (yay!) and more opportunities to work hours that align with our natural rhythms – Are you an early bird? A night owl? Some other avian species with a special time clock? When working from home, I’ve found it valuable to know what my patterns in focus & engagement are and to set my working hours around them…within reason. For example, I’m a morning and late afternoon person who experiences a lull round about lunch time, so I start work at 8am, take a break to do personal stuff between 12-2pm, and then work from 2pm-6pm. One of the things I noticed when I lost my commute and began working from home was that I had more time and work was always close by. These two factors combined with the fact that I no longer had a natural beginning and end to my day (marked by that commute), rolled up into this feeling that I should be working all the time (in fact felt guilty when I wasn’t), this sense that I was never done, and the reality that I worked much longer hours than I ever did when I had an office to go to. If you want to work longer hours out of desire, then by all means, please do. But if you don’t, I recommend that you don’t consider your commute time to be an extension of your working hours, but instead time you get back to do other things that make your life full – like sleep or read or cook or spend time with loved ones. And I also recommend that you think about your natural rhythms – when during the day you are most/least focused & engaged – and consciously set your working hours around that…within reason. I say “within reason,” because most of you who are temporarily working from home and whose work is dependent on others in the same time zone won’t have the flexibility to work hours that are radically divergent from the normal working day. For example, it’s unlikely that if you are going from an office environment to a work from home situation for a couple weeks that you can work from 8pm-1am (even if you are a night owl). But you will likely have some flexibility around the margins of your schedule (i.e. when traditional commutes & breaks would happen in an office setting) that you can play with. Most meetings in traditional organizations tend to happen between 9am-3:30pm, with lunch breaks between 11am-1pm. These are the places you get to play. For example, if you like to sleep in but you usually have to get up at 6am, so you can leave the house by 7am to be into the office at 8am for your 9am meeting, working from home you might be able to catch a few extra Zsss, get up at 8am and still be ready to start. Or if you tend to run out of steam at the end of the day and are an early bird, start up at 6am getting your personal work done, and be ready to engage with people come 9am, then close out around 3:30pm. If you like a mid-day break, take some time off around lunch time. Whatever you do, be clear with yourself about what you’re doing – know you’re starting at x time and ending at y time…and be mindful that that commute time doesn’t get involuntarily rolled into your work day…unless you’re consciously choosing to extend your work time. And as for what you need to communicate to your boss or teammates about your working hours, I’ll share this: Many of my clients often feel like they need to be super explicit with their boss about choices they are making around their schedule and get their permission that this is okay. Usually this is coming from a place of fear. Through experimentation, my clients often find that if they are getting their work done, showing up to team meetings and making small shifts to their working hours around the margins of their schedules, they don’t actually need to get permission; they can just honor their natural rhythms on the QT and all is well.
TIP #5: Set up an environment that works for you. Environment matters for sure in productivity. AND different environments foster different levels of productivity in different people. One of the gifts of working from home is that, to some extent, you get to set up your work environment so that it supports you in feeling good and productive. To do this requires a little bit of self reflection and self knowledge. For example, I know that having a clean & orderly space helps me focus – when pillows are over-turned or dishes are lying around, when there is clutter, it’s hard for me to concentrate, so every night I make a quick sweep of the house (or at least in the parts of my house that I’m doing work in) and put stuff away, so it looks orderly when I sit down to be productive the next day – takes 15 minutes or so but makes a huge difference. I know natural light fosters my sense of creativity, so I tend to work by a window and sometimes even sit outside to do work. I know I get distracted by music that has words but that I like some level of ambient noise, so I put on classical music while I work. Keep in mind that the environment that helps you be productive may not be the same as your partner’s, your roommates’, or your colleagues’ and so you may need to negotiate some things with them if you are sharing a space. For example, my fiancee is currently working from home with me and he needs complete silence to focus, whereas I like that ambient noise. We’ve had to find a way to make the space work for both of us and both of us have had to give a little. I usually work at this chair in the kitchen right by the window (‘cause I love the natural light), while I play my classical music, but we have an open concept space, so that means my music reverberates through the house which hinders him from focusing. I don’t love to wear headphones. He really wants to work from that chair. We are making it work – I’m giving up my normal working spot right now and instead working from our bedroom with the door closed, which has some nice light so I can play my music and don’t have to wear headphones. He’s got the chair in the kitchen and silence. 😉 It can be tempting right now to focus on what you don’t like or can’t control about your current working environment, and yet there may actually be significant things (and likely are many small things) you can do to set up your space so that it supports you in feeling calmer and more grounded amidst the ambiguity of now, even if you have to compromise a bit because you’re sharing space with a partner, a child, a roommate. So ask yourself – What do I know about what helps me feel focused, grounded, & engaged? How can I design or adjust your home space so that it reflects this?
TIP #6: Break to move and dance and eat and maybe even cook. When you are working from home, it’s easy to plunk yourself down in one spot and not get up from it for many hours, especially if that spot is the comfy living room couch where you’ve been known to binge watch Netflix. Don’t do this. It hurts your spine; it’s not healthy for you – just like sitting at your computer in your desk chair all day isn’t good for you either. Make sure you move. Do the normal office break things even when you’re working from home: get up, walk around, get a glass of water, stroll into another room, eat lunch. And also remember that you have so many more options for breaks and movement when you’re working from home – a single song dance party, a few downward dogs, some jumping jacks, cooking an omelette. My movement breaks consist of me dramatically flopping off the couch onto the floor and wrestling with my dog. Move. Have fun doing it.
As you settle into working from home for this upcoming period of time, give yourself permission to have days where you feel more or less productive. Mine both the “good” and the “bad” days for insights that will help you learn how to work more productively and sustainably from home over time. Working from home is a skill – which you may or may not have developed in your career to date. The great thing about skills is that they can be learned over time with practice and intentionality. Be compassionate with yourself as you are learning to do new things – and trust that you’ll get there over time.
And if you find yourself in want or need of some additional support in navigating the ambiguity and overwhelm of now or in setting up a work from home routine that works for you, sign up for a coaching mini session with me and I’d be happy to help you. Given the state of the world right now, for the next couple of weeks, I’m offering people the opportunity to “pay what you can” for our time in order to make coaching more widely available in this moment where so many of us need a little extra emotional and tactical support. During our time, I’m happy to support you as you process whatever is top of mind – help you think about what’s in your locus of control right now, set realistic goals & expectations, exercise self-care, design rituals & routines to calm & ground yourself and help you set up an effective work from home experience. Sending so much love and light your way right now.